A former Manhattan Beach school board official's refusal to relinquish postal records is at the center of an unusual public records spat between a state agency assigned to uphold election laws and the U.S. Postal Service.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission has filed a lawsuit in federal court over what it called the "improper" withholding of records by the Postal Service.
The commission regulates the political activities of public officials, lobbyists and campaign committees and enforces California's campaign reporting and disclosure requirements, conflict-of-interest rules, and election laws.
Since 2008, the state watchdog agency has been looking into allegations that William Eisen, a former member of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District board, violated campaign disclosure rules in an attempt to stave off a bitter recall campaign.
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In particular, commission investigators wanted to know whether mass mailings sent in support of Eisen's re-election that purportedly came from the South Bay Taxpayers Association and the South Bay Republican Club were actually sent by Eisen.
An investigator sent a subpoena to the Postal Service office in downtown Los Angeles. But before turning over Eisen's information, a post office official e-mailed the retired school board official to get consent, Eisen told California Watch this week. Eisen refused.
"Have some government agency poking around in my mail? Of course I would object to it," Eisen said. "I have a right to privacy, just like any mailer or mailing house."
Sidestepping the state's subpoena, the Postal Service eventually provided documents in response to the commission's request under the federal Freedom of Information Act. But the records were heavily redacted, according to the state's lawsuit. The Postal Service cited a federal exemption allowing the withholding of information of a "commercial nature," which wouldn't be "good business practice" to disclose, the lawsuit stated.
The Freedom of Information Act allows requestors to appeal decisions to withhold information.
Commission staff then took the matter to the federal Office of Government Information Services, which hears appeals of agency decisions to withhold records. The office sided with the Postal Service, saying that because the agency is a profit-making organization for the federal government, it had valid "commercial considerations" undergirding its decision to withhold records.
Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel said this week that such a ruling could effectively "shut down enforcement" of all state election laws. According to the lawsuit:
California, twelve other states, and the Federal Election Commission all regulate mailed political communications with regard to either the number of mailed pieces or dollar amount spent on the mail pieces before being categorized as a mass mailing.
Without compliance from the USPS, neither these 13 states, nor the federal government will be able to determine whether a mailing is in violation of their respective laws. The USPS denial of these claims will effectively shut down enforcement of state and federal laws regarding campaign communication disclosure on mass mailings, thereby depriving the public of the ability to identify and take action against persons in violation of these laws.
The commission ultimately determined that Eisen might have violated state law. But no final action was taken because the records that would fully substantiate the case remain with the Postal Service. Post office officials have not commented on the lawsuit.
Eisen, 69, who has been living with friends in the Manhattan Beach area while tending a recycling business, said he was surprised to see his name back in the news over the 2008 recall election.
He said he never received word about a hearing and thought the Fair Political Practices Commission had dropped the case. He blamed the commission investigation on past political opponents, still seething over his criticisms of wasteful spending and other political stands.
"For the last year and a half, I'd thought this whole thing was dead," Eisen said. "Now I see they're back on the track, trying to drum up stuff against me."
Eisen said he hadn't decided if he was going to take legal action, since the case has surfaced publicly. But he remains steadfast in his innocence, pointing out that he previously refused a settlement offer from the commission to pay an $8,000 fine because he didn't have the money and didn't believe he broke any laws.
Eisen did, however, find the current records spat between the state and federal government to be ironic in one way. He said that when he asked for copies of any evidence the commission had of his wrongdoing, he, too, was refused.
"They said it was privileged," he said.